How can we design our streets to become greater places? An event by Future Durban

On Wednesday 21 June, around eighty Durbanites with an interest in urbanism convened at the Old Wakaberry Building (217 Florida Road) to participate in a night celebrating Durban’s citymaking past and future.
The event was organized as part of Future Durban’s plenary on the launch of the Global Street Design Guide, a resource document created to set a global baseline for designing streets and public spaces while redefining the role of streets in a rapidly urbanising world.

Durban: The embrace of a cosmopolitan past

Durban has followed its own idiosyncratic blueprint as a city, finding its urban identity through an embrace of a distinctly cosmopolitan past, one which juxtaposes itself to those of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Durban is home to a number of great streets and as the night suggests, these have even more potential to become safe, vibrant and welcome people from all walks of life. With great design, a good diversity of stores and spaces and incorporating heritage in street names, major strides could be made.

A night about city design and street life

The night’s introduction talk was given by Richard Gevers, founder of Open Data Durban. As a steering committee member of Future Durban, Richard introduced the audience to his vision for inclusive cities, relating to them his own experience watching the changes he witnessed take place over the last decade in Open Data Durban’s own neighborhood.

He then brought on the first speaker, Our Future Cities founder Rashiq Fataar, who gave a presentation on the Global Street Design Guide and outlined its relevance to the city of Durban. Mr. Fataar broke down the key elements to good street design, a vision premised upon a clear demarcation and setup of the street for multi-functionality and a diverse set of users. The guide highlights how streets become intersections for mobility as well as cultural and economic life, and with this comes a need to balance a variety of interests and possibilities. From making space for activity programming and artwork, to providing well-functioning and energy-efficient infrastructure for street commerce. Different users require design which reflects and is adaptable to the full spectrum of their needs. Everything from street furniture and cycle facilities to safe pedestrian crossings and good wayfinding.

Future Durban logo

Following this, Xolani Hlongwa, founder of Green Camp Gallery Project. shared his project, a hub of urban farming and art community, which grew out of the remains of a derelict and abandoned house in Umbilo, a downtown suburb in Durban. Using the materials left over from the house and donated material, Mr. Hlongwa and his colleagues used recycled material to regenerate a neighborhood block and give birth to an urban art community. The audience was relayed most of this visually, as Mr. Hlongwa presented a documentary (watch it here) plotting the building process and transformation of the space.

Green Heart Gallery Project

The final presenter of the night was Ms. Zakhi Mkhize regional manager for Spatial Planning at the eThekwini Municipality. Ms. Mkhize outlined her municipality’s vision to make Durban, by 2040, Africa’s most walkable city. That vision is premised upon an ambitious inner city master plan, approved by municipal council last year, aiming to re-integrate and regenerate the downtown core of Durban.

Currently, the inner core is responsible for over 65% of the city’s generated revenue and 80% of catalytic projects. It is why the City council considers this to be the key hub for expanding development and growth.

Downtown Durban Transport Hub

The new city plan advocates for the inner city as a locality, a model Ms. Mkhize noted was founded on international best practice. Under the new master plan, the government proposes that the area would be wholly owned by the city, with representation and counsel from a broad spectrum of Durban’s commercial, political and cultural stakeholders.  The strategy was explained, sometimes through audible skepticism from the crowd, by Ms. Mkhize, unaffected and seemingly emboldened. She went on to highlight a density strategy, explaining that “the city is home to 80 000 people currently, a number we want to bump up to 350 000 by 2040”. Ms. Mkhize emphasized the need for integrated implementation,  saying “we need public land, private sector initiatives and cross-sectoral collaboration to implement this plan together”, positing interventions the city might be looking to fund in order to improve mobility, i.e. making some streets two-way, and continued investment into the integrated public transport network.

Throughout the night, what had become apparent to anyone watching was a clear volition on the part of the audience and perhaps shared by the city more widely to engage with the visions and plans for the future of their city. An earnest desire to participate and to continue the discussion was communicated by many. This is an exciting scenario for any city, and Durban would do well to take advantage.

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